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The failure of monarchical government

The Hundred Years War, Volume III: Divided Houses - Jonathan Sumption

Two themes define the third volume of Jonathan Sumption's history of the Hundred Years' War. The first is the shift in fortunes from the English to the French. After the successes enjoyed by English arms in the 1350s that culminated in the capture of the French king John II, the tide began to turn against them as a result of a number of factors. Paramount among them was the leadership of John's son Charles V, who after taking the throne in the aftermath of his father's death began repairing French fortunes through better financial management. Not only did this allow the French to maintain a permanent army, thus addressing some of the problems created by employing mercenary bands, but it put the French in a better position to exploit English weakness. With the resumption of the fighting in 1369. France was able to reverse English gains from the previous decade, gradually clawing back territories that had been claimed by English forces.

 

In this they were aided by the growing problems of the English government, which formed the second theme of the volume -- the failure of monarchical government. Though having led England to victory earlier in the war, by the 1370s Edward III was suffering from the maladies of old age and was increasingly disengaged from government. Moreover, the growing number of military setbacks fueled discontent with the financial burdens of the war, especially when military failures in France were compared with the triumphs of before. Nor did Edward's death in 1377 alleviate matters, as his succession by his 10-year-old grandson Richard II, whose own crisis-filled regime was preceded by infighting among a troubled political nation. France was in poor position to benefit from this, however, as Charles's own death in 1380 led to his replacement by his son, a dashing dullard who from 1392 began experiencing the bouts of insanity that would increasingly plague him for the next thirty years. With so much authority reliant upon monarchical legitimacy, the result in both kingdoms was a political vacuum inadequately filled by competing advisers who were content to let the war drift into an inconclusive truce that lasted for the remainder of the century.

 

Sumption recounts all of this in a masterful account that maintains the high standards he set for himself with his earlier volumes. While some of the early chapters drag a little, he succeeds for the most part in capturing the epic scale of the conflict, one that was not confined to the two kingdoms but had an impact on virtually all of western and southwestern Europe. By the time the reader finishes the pages of this book they are left not only with a through understanding of the intricate interconnections that shaped the conflict, but they are left wanting to pick up the next volume to discover what happened. next. After over a thousand pages chronicling thirty decades of incessant conflict, this is no small feat, and serves as a testament to the quality of Sumption's work.